Summer sunlight blazes through the cracks between drawn curtains, creating bars of light across my dog as we all huddle inside the shadows to escape the heat. We have no air-conditioning because it’s rarely needed. Today, I can empathize with those hardy pioneers who settled on the prairie and endured summers without modern conveniences.
My office upstairs feels like a stuffy attic so I’m writing at my kitchen desk; books scatter across the dining-room table as I try to make sense of recent research. There are cracks in the stories that historians tell about Wild Bill Hickok. Cracks also in my loyalty to kin as I realize I’m becoming enamored with Hickok like some wild-west-junkie.
Researching Sarah, Cob & Hickok
Hickok biographer, Joseph G. Rosa, has both deepened the spell and broken it. Rosa himself fell in love with the idea of Hickok as hero when he watched Gary Cooper portray Hickok in the 1936 movie, The Plainsman. Called “highly fictional,” it nonetheless sent Rosa on a lifelong search for who Hickok really was as a man.
Rosa would discover that early Hickok historians were often highly fictional, too. While some based their stories on exaggerated newspaper accounts, including the one that launched the whole “M’Kandlas Gang” myth into existence, others nagged the Hickok family for facts, or made up their own. One even harassed a 93-year-old Sarah Shull until she confessed to historian, F. J. Wilstach, that David Colbert McCanles was a “horse-thief for the Confederacy.” Even Rosa says that Sarah most likely told Wilstach what he wanted to hear so he’d leave her in peace. Historian, Mark Dugan, goes deeper to surmise that Sarah would rather confess McCanles as a horse-thief than as her lover.
That Sarah was Cob’s lover is documented by my 4th-great grandfather, James McCanles who was Cob’s father. Sarah had a baby out of wedlock in 1856. A year later, the baby died but was memorialized in a poem that James wrote to his granddaughter. That shows the McCanles family accepted the girl as one of their own. Also, it is documented that Sarah’s father refused to grind corn for James after 1856, and it’s known locally that he shunned his own daughter. He did not accept the baby born out of wedlock and held the McCanles family accountable.
“Cob” was a familial nickname, probably derived from David’s middle name Colbert, phonetically making the “l” in “Colb” silent. In recognizing the phonetics, you can almost hear the deep southern drawl in how the name was pronounced, “Cawb.” It’s important to remember that his name was perceived as southern as we consider the misconception of historians, including Rosa, that because Cob was southern, he was a Confederate sympathizer. Absolutely not. I’ve extensively researched the duality of Civil War sides in my North Carolina kin, having ancestors that fought brother-against-brother. I have records that show the dividing lines, and the McCanles men were Unionists.
Where historians make their assumption is in the bloody scrimmages that marked the Kansas-Missouri territory as “bleeding Kansas.” Here, staunch abolitionists went toe-to-toe with diehard slavers over the issue of slave-states as America expanded west. The Hickok family came from Illinois and were abolitionists, even participating in the underground railroad. Thus, historians pit McCanles against Hickok as part of the border ruffian battles. While Cob wasn’t necessarily for or against slavery, he was staunchly opposed to succession. Ultimately, both men were pro-union but for different reasons. So nix the idea that Cob was doing anything on behalf of the Confederacy.
But what was he doing out west? Several historians in the 1920s dug up information that Cob had made off with tax-payer money as sheriff of Watauga County, NC. Court records substantiate this claim, although most historians, Rosa included, rely on the hearsay accounts of historian, J. P. Arthur. And here’s another crack: if Arthur is correct, and court documents do show multiple parties involved in a scheme, then Cob was not the only one who benefited.
Consider this–your buddy says, “Hey, I know how we can scam the system.” If the scam includes only your buddy getting money with your help, you’d probably pass. But if the scam means that you get money too, then you’d be more likely to get involved. So, to say that Cob was helped by his brother Leroy, the deputy and his kin, the Coffey kin and several others, you have to wonder what was in it for them. Cob might have left North Carolina with his pockets lined, but who else lined their pockets, too?
This leads to an interesting, unexplored crack. While historians take sides regarding why and how Hickok shot Cob, and families ruffle feathers over the bad light old tales cast on dead ancestors, we have failed to consider Sarah’s role beyond that of mistress. Women are crafty, too. Consider what Arthur writes about Cob:
“McCanless was a strikingly handsome man and well-behaved, useful citizen till he became involved with a woman not his wife, after which he fell into evil courses.”
Add that thought to the skills that Dugan attributes to Sarah:
“As the children [Shull] grew to adulthood, they would help run the mill or work in the store. Following her arrival in Nebraska in 1859, Sarah reportedly kept books for McCanles and undoubtedly learned this while working in her father’s store.”
If Cob didn’t go wayward until 1855 when he met Sarah, who was 21 and working in her father’s store, is it possible that she–as an experienced accountant–came up with the scheme to defraud tax-payer money. Her motive? To leave town where she had been shunned, buried a baby and master-minded a fraud to fund her new life out west. Because after the money changed hands, that’s exactly what she and Cob did. They left.
Other cracks that seem minor, discrepancies such as whether or not Sarah left after Cob’s death, or how Hickok was injured before coming to Rock Creek are difficult to prove or disprove. So many historians rely on the accounts of others. Rosa discredits earlier Hickok biographers but then relies on their same work to show McCanles as a sadist horse-thieving Confederate bully. Rosa fully cites from Hickok’s great-nephew, but sneers at Cob’s son who shares his eye-witness account of the Rock Creek incident because it was published 50 years later.
My conclusion: historians are all cracked.
While I hope to one day write a fictional account of Sarah, Cob and Hickok as a BOTS (based on a true story) it’s hard to sift out what is true. That I fell for the legend that is Hickok is partly because of letters Rosa published from him as a young man, first arrived in Kansas Territory. So full of enthusiasm, humor and adventure it’s hard not to love the boy he must have been. I hope to find that in Cob, too and certainly I feel sad for Sarah who lived long knowing the real reasons for what happened that hot summer day on the prairie in 1861.
Let’s Get On With It!
If you haven’t already guessed, I’m exploring cracks. We crack-up at jokes; we call the mentally-crazed “cracked”; we know it as slang for cocaine, a sharp retort, a split, a change in voice. There are cracks in times, cracks on her face, and worrisome cracks across thin-ice. What a wonderfully rich word is found in crack.
July 30, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a crack. It’s a rich word, full of possibility. Do cracks reveal something to you, something beyond the surface? Take a crack at this prompt and respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, August 5 to be included in the compilation.
Calico Curtains by Charli Mills
Sarah stared at the crack between calico curtains. Cob had teased her when she hung the divide.
“Why the bed veil? I like watching you stir the fire from here, Rosebud.” He reclined on the trundle bed, leaning on an elbow. Thick black hair tousled. Blue eyes shining like summer sky on water. She remembered smiling, abandoning her task.
Her ears rung as acrid smoke drifted from parted calico. Cob had just come to the back door, asking for water, touching her fingers lightly as she passed the cup.
It was the perfect place to hide, behind those curtains.
Rules of Play:
New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
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